Last Will, Bryn Greenwood, Stairway Press, 2012, 279 pp
I don't recall how this book came to my attention. Stairway Press is the tiniest of indie publishers and the only unfortunate result of that is a possible lack of publicity. Because this is a great novel that falls just enough off the beaten track of current fiction to make it refreshingly unique.
Bernie Raleigh is a 30-year-old man to whom nothing good has ever happened. He is the grandson and sole heir of the richest man in Oklahoma City. Kidnapped when he was almost 10 by a local psychopath hoping for a large ransom, he was traumatized, psychoanalyzed to no avail, rejected by his mother, and grew up to be a useless failure. He finally found a job he liked as a librarian and had been hiding away in Kansas City. Then his grandfather dies and Bernie finds himself back in the Raleigh mansion, the loneliest and most confused billionaire in the world.
Meda Amos is a direct descendant of two Russian immigrant sisters who were forced to turn to prostitution when their parents died of influenza in the 1800s. Teenagers in a frontier town, without relatives or friends, they had no other resources. Meda is blessed and cursed with great beauty, making her a magnet to men but also a victim. She is raising a daughter, working as a maid at the mansion, living with her aging grandmother and trying to look out for her alcoholic mom, who believes in UFOs and alien abduction.
Last Will is an almost perfect summer read, because it is a romance set in the freezing cold Oklahoma winter. With exquisite wry tenderness, Bryn Greenwood has written a modern Cinderella tale in three first person voices: Bernie, Meda, and Aunt Ginny, who is Bernie's aunt but is really his guardian angel/fairy godmother. As soon as I turned the last page, I wanted to go to the beginning and read it all over again. I suspect I may reread this captivating story many times in the years to come.
It took Ms Greenwood a decade to get her first novel published. Only the mysterious ways of publishing can explain such a thing. She makes you love her characters, introducing them so smoothly I felt I already knew them and would never forget them. The back-stories of Bernie and Meda are revealed in bits but so expertly, giving out details only as needed to further the plot.
Because of his past, Bernie's depression and wish to be anonymous combine with the unconscious assurance of the rich, making him an unpredictable mix of hapless kindness and hopeless estrangement from others. Because of her past, Meda is tough, wise beyond her years, but oh so conflicted about the attentions of this young man with all that money. Watching them grope towards understanding as they help each other heal is maddening but irresistible.
Last Will may not be great literature but it is consummate storytelling. In another era, it may have been great literature in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, George Eliot, or Jane Austen. This is a deeply engaging tale of love, money, tragedy, and society with a healthy dose of humor and a healthy respect for humanity. So curl up with the A/C on or by the pool and lose yourself in a good read!